Okay, so literally, failure is a seven-letter word. But if you look around our culture these days, it’s become a four-letter word. Something to be avoided.
We don’t fail students in school, with teachers often going out of their way to help kids pass subjects and grades. We award participation trophies to everyone so no one feels left out. Failure is to be avoided at all costs. Period.
Except we forget that failure is often an important part of success. Quoting cartoonist Stephen McCranie, Grand Master In Ho Lee recently said, “A master has failed more times than a beginner has ever tried.”
Think about that for a moment. We all want to be the person for whom it comes easily. We are successful every time we try. Not getting it “right” is not the desired outcome. But such a mindset is foolish because we can’t possibly be “right” every time. There is another old saying, “You learn more from your failures than your successes.” There is more than a nugget of truth there. When we succeed at something, it’s often a gateway to another goal or activity. We may celebrate, but we don’t stop and say, “What did we do right? How can we do it again?”
Contrast that with not achieving the goal immediately. We step back. What did we do? How could we do it better? How could we do it differently? What would we like to change? The process teaches critical thinking and self-evaluation. Picking ourselves up, dusting off our virtual pants, and giving it another shot teaches perseverance and dedication. All of these things are critical to achieving long-term success in life.
And yes, we would rather hear about the successes. They are more fun. But history is filled with “overnight” success stories that took ten, fifteen, or twenty years to happen. JK Rowling, one of the most successful writers of our age, was rejected by multiple publishers before one took a chance on Harry Potter. Steve Jobs, synonymous with innovation and technology, was fired by Apple in the mid-1980s before going on to create a successful company. And for every breakout athlete who wows us in their rookie season, there are three guys or women who practiced and worked for years before becoming a superstar.
The truth is failure is not something to be avoided. It’s going to happen on your way to success – whatever that success looks like. The issue is not have you avoided failure, but what have you learned from it? Grand Master’s quote above speaks to true mastery: the master doesn’t encounter failure, throw up his hands and go home. The master knows this is part of the process.
Taekwondo exemplifies this at every level. Students no-change at testing. They don’t break a board (especially one that is challenging). Maybe they don’t perform as well as hoped at a tournament. But the ones who keep trying bounce back. In the long run, they tend to do better than people who succeed on the first try all the time or those who give up.
Thomas Edison, one of the greatest inventors of the twentieth century, said, “I have not failed. I have found 10,000 ways that do not work.” Edison did not invent the incandescent light bulb. But he tried to make it better. The process took him over a year and many, many attempts. Some would call this failure. Not Edison. He looked at the attempt, tried to decide what didn’t work, and tried again. Over and over. By the time he died, Edison had well over 1,000 patents to his name. But what that number doesn’t take into account is the number of times he “failed”; the number of times it didn’t quite work.
In our lives, we will try to accomplish things: becoming a Black Belt, joining a sports team, getting a new job, or learning a new skill. We’re going to fall down and miss the mark. But if we want to be a master, we will see these as things to learn from, not reasons to quit. We may find our 10,000 ways that do not work. But we should always give it another try.
Because way 10,001 might be the winner.
A software technical writer by day, Mary Sutton is the mother of two teens and has been making her living with words for over ten years. She is the author of the Hero’s Sword middle-grade fantasy series, writing as M.E. Sutton, and The Laurel Highlands Mysteries police-procedural series, writing as Liz Milliron. Visit her online at www.marysuttonauthor.com.